Satisfying the Ghazal Mind

The Ghazal

Like a sturdy flowering vine, the poetry form known as the ghazal has spread over the world, taking on variety and nourishment from different countries and times. Characterized by strict form but extreme freedom of content, the ghazal is often compared to a string of jewels, with each jewel having its own beauty but all contributing to the beauty of the necklace. Originally love poems, ghazals now express, love, prayer, revolution—in short, the whole gamut of human emotion.

History of the Ghazal

The ghazal, a poem consisting of any number of rhymed couplets (in contemporary writing often seven—it must be an odd number), began about 1300 years ago in Persia. Most contemporary poets know the ghazals of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273), Maher Baba Hafiz (1325-1389), or the modern master, the late Agha Shahid Ali. The ghazal form has attracted writers such as Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, and Gene Doty, who have written ghazals with varying degrees of fidelity or experimentation.

Some vocabulary words one should be familiar with when discussing ghazals are sher (a couplet with lines of the same length, no enjambment between couplets), beher (metre, which can be in short, medium, or long lines), matla (the first couplet, which establishes the tone and metre of the poem), maqta (the last couplet, which is more general and philosophical, traditionally incorporating the poet’s name), radif (the repeated word that ends both lines of the first couplet and the second line of each succeeding couplet), and qafiya (a word or two immediately preceding the initial monorhyme, which rhymes with words in the corresponding position in the following couplets) .

The late Agha Shahid Ali said that one should think of each couplet as a small poem complete in itself and compared the sher to a sonnet, where the first line of the sher serves as the first eight lines of the sonnet and the second line as the sestet of the sonnet, in which there is a “turn” toward the denouement. According to Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr., a noted scholar and translator, these poems in Persian consist of one long line, with a strong caesura.

To modern writers of ghazals, an important consideration is the "Englishing" of this ancient Arabic-Persian-Urdu form, trying how far one can go with variations and yet still offer poems as ghazals rather than free verse couplets. Although I am not a speaker of Urdu (or other languages in which the ghazal has a rich history), I am told that even in these languages there is interest in modern variations.

The traditional requirements of matla and maqta, qafiya and radif, beher, and so on, in my opinion, are easier matters for a writer to experiment with than the concept of the supposed discontinuity of the couplets, the most distinguishing characteristic of the ghazal. Accordingly, this essay will focus on the relationship of the shers to one another and to the poem as a whole.

The Ghazal Mind

For my title, I have coined the expression “the ghazal mind” to describe a reader’s/writer’s expectations and preparedness to receive thoughts written in the ghazal form. The greater the reader’s/writer’s knowledge of the history and development of ghazals, the more he/she can appreciate various tools that fulfill the underlying structures that, even in variation, support the poetry, by which I mean both the discipline of the appropriate elements, such as the qafiya/radif, and the freedom and allusiveness of the shers, all necessary if a ghazal is to achieve its full promise and be satisfying to the reader (and to the writer).

Accordingly, someone reading a supposed ghazal who finds appropriate structures, consistent metre, use of qafiya/radif  but also finds the story of a romance developed as a narrative, from initial attraction to final disillusion, will probably find his/her ghazal mind is not satisfied, might say, “Hey, good poem but not a ghazal, to my way of thinking,” since such narrative development is not a characteristic of a ghazal, although there may be a subtle underlying theme.

Comparing poetry to painting, I might say that such a ghazal would be like a painting in which the artist has a vision, has an excellent eye for color, controls the brush strokes well but sets up a composition that is unsatisfying. A part of the “painting mind” is not satisfied. On a gastronomical level, a cook may prepare a meal that is well-cooked, well-sauced, and served on exquisite dishes with crystal and silver, but the meal will not be satisfying if the basic ingredients are boring and past their prime. A part of the “food enjoyment mind” is not satisfied. In the same way, the ghazal writer tries to ensure that each part of the ghazal, even with variation, is developed as a whole, with enough of the required elements to satisfy “the ghazal mind.”

The Traditional Disunity

For those of us writing in English, it is helpful to see the ghazal as a continuum from the strictest classical interpretation of the form to the so-called free ghazals, which maintain the allusive approach to couplets but feel no compulsion to keep other elements of the form.

For me, as for many others, the richness of the ghazal greatly depends on the tension between the independence of the allusive shers, what Agha Shahid Ali called the “ravishing disunity,” and the discipline of the qafiya and radif (often broadly interpreted); I think consideration of the sher as an independent couplet and the unifying factor of the qafiya and radif is the key aspect of ghazals. Accordingly, in this essay I will explore the shers’ relationships to the radif (whether stated or understood) and to one another.

To begin with, let's look at the traditional disunity of the shers. Classically, we are told that the shers are independent of one another. However, in my opinion, this viewpoint often holds up better in theory than in actual practice. Once the initial sher has risen out of the poet's mind and been associated with some sort of qafiya and/or radif (or other unifying factor), which then becomes a necessary part of the succeeding shers, there is inevitable connection, if for no other reason than associations stemming from cultural expectations.

The Inevitable Unity

Propinquity breeds familiarity, like the phenomenon known to college women living in a dormitory, where gradually they all start to have their periods at the same time. Their disparate bodies have linked in some unfathomable way simply because they are living in the same space. And so with shers. When the shers fit to the same rhyme and mono-rhyme, or other unifying factor, there is connection. But the shers may still have as much individuality as the young capped Mennonite and the follower of the Stones, who are so different yet share femaleness as they live in the same residence hall.

Thinking of each sher as totally disparate may lead us in the wrong direction. I think the point is more to avoid development and resolution, except within the sher. In my opinion, it is very difficult to avoid subtle connections, once the maqta has been stated and the qafiya/radif established, and indeed, to me, gaining insight into these connections is part of the joy of reading ghazals. At the same time, however, to have the "ravishing disunity" of the shers always before the writer as a guiding light will help us to steer a true course and not fall into the trap of writing a so-called ghazal with too-great reliance on theme and/or narrative.

The Allusive Connections

I find it helpful to think of the shers in any single seven-sher ghazal as being like six people in a ruminative conversation, where someone says something of a general nature about life. The others appear to be part of the same conversation, for somehow the first saying sparks each of them, as do the additional silences in the conversation and the accumulation of each person's utterances there in the room, but in general each seems to be involved in a monologue with himself/herself, until the first speaker speaks again, this time a little more personally. At the same time, connections run through the liminality between their utterances.

As an example, let me write such a conversation, which, will, I hope, in a very mundane way, shine some light on the way the ghazal mind can work as a poet writes.

A Ghazally Conversation
six people sitting around in a bar on a hot summer afternoon, drinking boilermakers and shooting the breeze, with perhaps a reflective silence and a few swallows between each part of the conversation
  1. "Life is so precarious today; everybody seems to be losing their job."

    (Know it or not, this first speaker is establishing the tone of the conversation.)
  2. "I'm not sure my wife is coming back."

    (Hearing "precarious," this person relates to his immediate concern, that which is in his mind. He, as well as the first speaker, is addressing the precariousness of life; however, he doesn't relate to the subject of job loss, but to wife loss.)
  3. "Have to drive down to Tennesee tomorrow; a worry with gas prices the way they are."

    (The reason for the drive to Tennessee? An old aunt has died, the last member of the speaker's family, suggested by "wife." The remark about gas prices, a general worry, may reflect both the financial insecurity of the first speaker and the family instability of the second speaker.")
  4. "Saw a story about a solar-powered car on the news last night."

    (Responding to the comment about gas prices.)
  5. "Anybody going down to the shore this weekend?"

    (Mention of solar power has brought the idea of sunshine at the shore to mind. The southernness of Tennesee has also made the speaker think of sunshine, and thus the shore.)
  6. "No sooner do the leaves stop falling and it stops snowing than you have to cut the grass and hedges."

    (A little joke but responding to summertime activities. Perhaps the passage of time. At least, worry about the obligations of living in community.)
  7. "Yeah, I guess losing a job is pretty low on the loss scale. But as long as you've got your health and your family, right?"

    (The first speaker has circled back to the original topic, with variation, and reference to self.)

Although in print this conversation seems disconnected, as may happen after listening to or reading a ghazal, these people are likely to part, feeling they have had a fairly satisfying human connection, saying, "Hey, it's been great talking. Let's do it again soon."

Looking at this conversation again, with transitional phrases, we can see how the relationships worked. Once the parts in italics have been added, what looked surreal becomes a comprehensible conversation. The relationship among the shers has been formalized.
  1. Life is so precarious today; everybody seems to be losing their job.
  2. Speaking of loss, I'm not sure my wife is coming back today.
  3. I just lost the last member of my family, an old aunt. I have to drive down to Tennessee for the funeral  tomorrow. A worry with gas prices the way they are.
  4. Speaking of gas prices, I saw a story about a solar-powered car on the news last night.
  5. Solar power. Great for places with plenty of sunshine. Anybody going down to the shore this weekend?
  6. Got too much to do around the house. No sooner do the leaves stop falling and it stops snowing than you have to cut the grass and hedges.
  7. Well, we're lucky to have houses. I guess losing a job is pretty low on the loss scale. But as long as you've got your health and your family, right?

While it may not be true for others, for me, shers often work very much like the parts of this conversation, each succeeding sher arising out of the silence following the last sher. Trust your mind to offer something, in the same way Drano working in your pipes offers rather beautiful bursting glubby bubbles that work their way to the surface, eventually letting the water run free. Think of the glubby bubbles as shers and the pipes as the qafiya/radif. Stuff is working out to let the thought run clear through the discipline of the walls of the pipe.

A ghazal is like a sparkler, with the flung-off sparks taking substance from the glowing core; like the primordial sea with distinct emerging creatures, all with the composition of the brine from which they have come; like children running in free patterns playing tag, swooping and circling around one another, completely free except for the moment when they turn back, touch home base for a moment of rest, and then break free to run again; like a tour through the streets of the medieval Marais section of Paris, where from time to time you might lose track of a nice street you're enjoying but after a few turns and around the block, you catch sight of it again and again and again.

Tree Riesener has published poetry and short fiction in such magazines as The Evergreen Review, Identity Theory, Pindeldyboz, Loch Raven Review, The Belletrist Review, Diner, and Fine Print. She has also been a semi-finalist in the Pablo Neruda Poetry Competition and received a Hawthornden International Writing Fellowship, a Pushcart nomination, and the William Van Wert Fiction Award. She presently serves as Managing Editor of the Schuylkill Valley Journal and is the author of Liminalog, a chapbook of ghazals and sijo. Visit her website at www.treeriesener.com

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761